Experience over politics noted in top county races

by The City Wire staff (info@thecitywire.com) 39 views 

Countywide races aren't always mere reviews of qualifications and party affiliation.

Candidates this fall are debating the propriety of collectors taking commissions on court-ordered foreclosure auctions as well as the need for satellite offices and drawbacks to multiagency computer networks.

Six races in Benton and Washington counties are being contested in this fall's general election. With early voting beginning Oct. 22 in Arkansas, profiles of candidates in Northwest Arkansas countywide races should prove helpful.

Each county's eight top-elected officials have two-year terms and declare party affiliation. (See links at end of story for voter precinct info.)

Benton County has only one contested race for the Nov. 6 general election, county judge.

• County Judge
Bob Clinard (R), and Ronnie Smith (I)

Bob Clinard, 62, is running for a second term as county judge. A resident of the county since 1993, the Republican has spent most of life in commercial construction and began his own company in 1979.

Clinard cites three accomplishments of his first term: construction of a new juvenile justice center, improving the Road Department and moving offices from leased property into county-owned buildings. If re-elected, Clinard wants to firm up plans for a new courts facility, noting the current building, built in 1928, is too small and has safety and security issues. He also wants more county roads paved as they're cheaper to maintain. Clinard is not worried about his budget: "We're in good shape, financially." Of his opponent, independent Ronnie L. Smith, he said, "I doubt that Mr. Smith has as much experience in as many areas as I do. That would be a drastic contrast."

Excavator Ronnie L. Smith, 56, is a Marine veteran and lifelong county resident. He co-founded his company J & R Dozer of Garfield in the early 1980s. He cites his management experience from his firm as a primary qualification, as well as his "business sense, my integrity."

In his only other race, also for county judge, Smith lost in the 1986 Democratic primary. A conservative, Smith said he does not want to hew to either party's policy line or entire candidate roster. That's why, he said, he chose to get gather many more than the minimum 1,595 signatures of registered voters to run as an independent. If elected, Smith promises greater accessibility to residents and to improve morale among county employees. "Most voters live in incorporated cities, but the post serves the rural areas," he said. "I look people in the eye and tell them the truth."

Two Benton County positions were determined in the spring GOP primary, because there was no Democratic opposition: Kelley Cradduck becomes sheriff in January, and Glenn “Bear” Chaney will begin a second term as assessor.

Unopposed in the GOP primary were Tena O'Brien as county clerk, Brenda DeShields as circuit clerk, Gloria Peterson as collector, Deanna Ratliff as treasurer and Daniel R. Oxford as coroner.

• Circuit Clerk

Mona Piazza (D), Kyle Sylvester (R)

Democrat Mona Piazza, 53, a county resident since childhood, has been endorsed by Democratic outgoing Circuit Clerk Bette Stamps. A deputy circuit clerk, she currently computer administrator.

Overall she has more than 20 years of clerical and computer administration experience. Among her goals if elected, Piazza would institute Property Check, a fraud-protection service that notifies property owners when documents on their holdings are filed. Piazza would continue to implement the new Contexte, a web-based system from Xerox for electronic filing of court cases being coordinated by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

Piazza sees "the duty of the clerk is a hands-on working job, not just an administrative position." On foreclosure fees, Piazza noted that Arkansas circuit clerks can take a fee of one tenth of 1% of each property foreclosure sale of more than $35,000 when ordered by a judge to serve as its commissioner. She said, "Hundreds of private foreclosure sales are handled by private companies every year" with greater commissions than of judicial sales, adding in an email, "I will follow the orders of the Circuit Court Judges, but will not oppose legislative change.

Republican Kyle Sylvester, 43, has been a county resident since infancy, except for a dozen years on the Siloam Springs police force.

He returned to Washington County in 2003, joining the Johnson Police Department, now serving as patrol lieutenant. Sylvester cites as a qualification his leadership and management experience, as 17 of his 22 years in law enforcement have been in supervisory positions, with fiscal responsibility.

"I feel very equipped to be able to manage an office staff and to develop the strengths of the personnel to build the best team possible." Sylvester noted that state law allows the circuit clerk to personally accept foreclosure fees when a property is sold on the courthouse steps. He said the current Washington County clerk takes such proceeds, and he vowed that if elected he would turn all such revenue over to the Quorum Court, "to benefit the citizens of the county. It does not, in my opinion, need to go into the pocket of the circuit clerk."

• County Clerk
Becky Lewallen (R), Ann Upton (D)

Republican Becky Lewallen, 31, told The City Wire in that she has been endorsed by the Democratic county clerk, Karen Pritchard, who is retiring from office. Lewallen has worked in that office for more than 10 years, currently as assistant election administrator in charge of absentee voting.

Lewallen cites this – "experience, knowledge and continuity" – as her chief qualification, adding, "I have worked in all aspects of the office doing everything from marriage license, business filings, probate court work, voter registration and election set-up." Lewallen sees Upton's suggestion of satellite locations as not cost-effective, based on the agency's average monthly number of transactions. Lewallen also is leery of joining the overall county office computer/IT network, giving as an example, "If our computer goes down during early voting, we don't have days to wait for repair." If elected she would advocate on any state legislation that would affect the clerk's office.

Democrat Ann Upton, 43, is a lifelong resident of the county, for which she has worked 13 years. For most of her tenure in the county judge's office she has been in emergency management and now is the county's Information Technology Department's help desk computer tech.

She noted the clerk's office uses a stand-alone computer system, not supported by the county's IT staff. She wants the clerk's office to join a multicounty computer network to "make the system more robust and secure while at the same time make the office more accessible." Upton would like the clerk's office to be represented in the Lincoln and Springdale revenue offices, are as other county agencies. Her office should start accepting debit- and credit-card payments.

She proposes a "Congrats Packet," to be co-sponsored by businesses and chambers of commerce, that would contain coupons and samples to give to people applying for marriage licenses and doing-business-as certificates.

• Collector
Greg Bradford (D), David Ruff (R)

Greg Bradford, 43, is Democratic candidate for Washington County collector. The eight-year county resident was a 15-year mortgage loan manager and originator until 2011. It is this work Bradford cites as a qualification, as it includes collecting real estate property taxes on nearly all loan transactions.

Bradford previously spent nine years in Little Rock, in the state Senate as reading clerk then the governor's office as appointments director. If elected, Bradford said, his priority would be to improve communications, which he's heard from taxpayers is a great problem. He wants to increase collection of delinquent taxes with increased late penalties on repeat offenders. He'd like the collector's web page to have more links, a complete staff directory and a millage-tax calculator.

Bradford noted the state land commissioner’s list of properties for public auction includes none from Washington County. He said he would offer a "better perspective" than the current collector.

Republican David Ruff, 64, is completing his 12th year as Washington County collector. A 24-year county resident, he had been a furniture manufacturer, owner of Ruff Wood Oak Products of Springdale.

He cites as an accomplishment setting up the collector's office to be one of the first in the state to accept credit card and online tax payments. Also, his creation of a separate enforcement department simplifies collection. It's firms, not individuals, that become delinquent most often, he said, and it's business personal property tax, not real property of people or businesses, that usually goes unpaid. While personal property for people usually comprises just vehicles, for businesses the category also includes "computers, furnishings, anything that you use physically."

If elected, Ruff wants to continue to help plan a sophisticated phone system for his and all county offices, and obtain dedicated software instead of QuickBooks for his department.

• Treasurer
Roger Haney (D), Russ Hill (R)

Democrat Roger Haney, 66, has been county treasurer since 1998, but this is the first year he has drawn an opponent. A 42-year resident, Haney began as an educator in Springdale Public Schools then worked for then-Sen. and Gov. David Pryor.

Haney cites his having been an administrator for the county judge's office 1979-98 for skills in budgeting, purchasing and management. "In addition to accounting for the funds that the county collects for its operation, the county treasurer’s office also accounts for school funds and city taxes that make up 90 percent of all funds handled by the office," he said. Looking at an eighth term, Haney credits keeping up with "the latest proven technology" in keeping "the same number of employee positions since coming into office even though the workload has increased dramatically." Haney said he is not familiar with Hill.

Republican Russ Hill, 39, is a Washington County native, and is an account manager for the trucking company Leon Cannon Logistics.

As qualification for being elected county treasurer, Hill cites his work experience, where he manages multiple accounts worth millions of dollars as well as pricing and projecting lane rates for clients, based on current and future markets. "My plan is to bring my business and leadership experience and put it to work for Washington County," Hill said.

Of longtime Treasurer Roger Haney, Hill said, "I would say our biggest contrasts would be that Haney has been a career politician and I have worked in the business world."

• Assessor
Dan Cypert (D), Jeff Williams (R)

Democrat Dan Cypert, 43, has lived in Washington County since early childhood. For over a year he's been a licensing compliance analyst for the home office of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

He previously worked for the Washington County assessor's office more than 15 years, the last eight of which were as chief deputy assessor. He said, "The assessor’s office is more a professional office than a political office; a person’s experience and qualifications should be the determining factors.”

A past president of the Arkansas chapter of the International Association of Assessing Officers, Cypert said he has been an instructor of valuation and property assessment courses. His goals include improvement in customer service, technology and citizen representation. Cypert also said he does not plan to run for other offices, explaining, "I do not view the office of assessor as a mere stepping stone to another position down the line."

Republican Assessor Jeff Williams, 49, is a 21-year county resident with previous jobs in financial management and environmental quality inspection of buildings. He won the post in the 2010 election.

Williams cites as an accomplishment putting individual personal property assessments online and expanding the service to online business personal property in the coming months. He noted his office has developed a GIS (Geographic Information System) for mapping, which is useful in several county departments. In differentiating himself with Cypert, Williams, cited his setting up strategic, long-term plans for the assessor's office that serve to save money yet assure quality work.

He said the assessor's job is broader than an appraiser's, even a well-credentialed one, requiring skills in policy setting and implementation, budgets and management.

Washington County officers who won their party primary last spring and face no opposition in November include County Judge Marilyn Edwards, Sheriff Tim Helder and Coroner Roger Morris, all incumbents and all Democrats.

What's your precinct?

Find out what district your home lies in and where your polling place is, at Voter View from the Arkansas Secretary of State's office.

The Washington County Election Commission has informative links.

In Benton County, the county clerk’s page has access to precinct info.